Throughout this series, I have tried to draw from numerous sources to provide an accurate accounting of the first decade of Kim Jong-un’s rule and to limit the number of my own opinion-based comments. For this final article, opinion is about all that anyone could offer. Informed opinion, but opinion and supposition, nonetheless.
People have offered predictions about North Korea since its inception. That there was no way it could survive the Korean War. That Kim Il-sung would end the nuclear program. That Kim Jong-il would falter in the face of famine and the whole system would collapse. That Kim Jong-un couldn’t handle power at such a young age or that war is inevitable.
Those predictions were all wrong. At the same time, plenty of other predictions have been right. That the government would survive the famine because it didn’t care about cutting less desirable citizens off from food. That the country would achieve nuclear miniaturization. That it wouldn’t stop illicit trade activities regardless of the United Nations and especially regardless of the United States.
So, this ‘look to the future’ opinion piece is just as likely to be wrong and to be right and to have areas of grey as the future unfolds and becomes the present. With that caveat, I will attempt to look at the trends of the last decade, the changes, and what’s stayed the same from Kim to Kim to Kim to inform my own views of what the next decade of Kim Jong-un’s rule may look like.
COVID and the Economy
The most pressing issue that Kim Jong-un will have to resolve is that of economic contraction due to his lockdown of the country over COVID-19 fears. After two years of very limited trade and internal quarantine measures, the economy is suffering more than it has at any other point during his rule and the food situation, in particular, has reached a critical point.
Although illicit activities have continued unabated, bringing in hundreds of millions each year, there is little indication that those funds are being used to prop up the economy; rather, they are most likely being used to maintain Kim’s lifestyle, provide gifts to the elites to keep their loyalty, and to continue the country’s military buildup.
As such, legal trade must resume before a crisis becomes inescapable, leading to future disease outbreaks (such as from tuberculosis), a limited famine, or even popular unrest. Kim will also have to consider finally allowing vaccines into the country as COVID-19 stops being a pandemic and transitions to an endemic global illness that will be around for years.
Leaving no opportunity behind, the COVID lockdown actually provides Kim the opportunity to gain greater control over the broader economy and over the economic activities of the people as the ‘border blockade’ has made it even more difficult for unapproved cross-border trading to continue. This places the state in a better position to control and monitor what goods come into the country, and it has set up at least two decontamination centers to help facilitate the resumption of trade: one in Sinuiju and one at the Port of Nampo.
A test run at the Sinuiju center recently took place on January 17, 2022, when a train entered North Korea from China after a two-year border shutdown resulted in an 80% drop in trade with the country. The outcome of the train visit and how well the government thinks the Sinuiju facility handled the operation may allow for a slow resumption of trade in the near future.
One twist in North Korea’s economic story has been how Kim, in the early years, allowed limited reform and the markets to continue to grow, but under COVID he has reverted back to more anti-market policies, desperately trying to reign in free market activities and strengthen the state’s central control over the economy. How this struggle against marketization will play out is anyone’s guess, but one complication that Kim is currently having to deal with and will continue to need to contain in future years is the “tyranny of growing expectations”.
As people become accustomed to a certain living standard, they begin to expect more from their government and begin to expect that life in the future will be better than what they have today. In a growing globalized world, this works itself out through expanding free markets and liberalized governments. But in North Korea and other closed states in the past, it can turn into a major threat to the regime as the government cannot compete with the gains made by marketization, and as the people realize that the outside world is much wealthier and freer than what they have at home.
Kim Jong-un made improving living standards and access to consumer goods a key pillar of his rule since the beginning. Promising no more ‘belt tightening’ in 2012, the government is today telling people that they should expect food shortages until at least 2025. After the moderate but measurable rise in living standards of the last 10-15 years, if the government isn’t able to maintain upward growth, then the popular pressure of growing expectations can serve to destabilize the regime.
Should this meld with other pressures against the current system, an inescapable domino effect may occur in the future, leading to the end of the state. This has been one of the biggest threats to the Kim’s and it is something they have managed to avoid thus far, but no one knows where the ultimate tipping point lies.
Regardless of economic reforms or further ossification, one thing, of course, that continued throughout the pandemic and will continue well into the future is North Korea’s illicit activities. Whether it’s selling counterfeit goods, money laundering and theft, or busting sanctions with oil, fish, luxury goods, and other commodities, the state will keep relying on these ill-gotten millions each year to try to stabilize the system and keep the elites in lockstep with Kim Jong-un.
Missile development is the next most important issue as Kim Jong-un works toward realizing his “wish list” as laid out in his speech to the 8th WPK Congress in January 2021. This list includes everything from developing improved ICBMs to hypersonic glide vehicles to tactical nuclear bombs and other weapon systems.
Kim Jong-un spent much of 2021 testing multiple weapons and showed off a wide range of equipment (some known, some new) during the “Self Defense 2021” exhibition. He also began 2022 with a series of seven missile launches that included its longest-range missile test since 2017.
Since the failed summits, North Korea has embarked on a series of technology demonstrators like the hypersonic glide vehicles (showing off two different designs) and rail-based missile launches. Having declared the country’s nuclear deterrent complete, Kim is going to need to continually develop new delivery methods and to improve his nuclear arsenal’s survivability, as it currently relies on a limited number of large, slow-moving TELs that cannot be easily replaced. This helps to explain the proliferation of weapon designs as well as radar and improved air defense systems.
I believe that future nuclear tests are unlikely, but they can’t be ruled out as Punggye-ri still has two functional tunnels. And after North Korea implied that the self-imposed moratorium on testing would no longer be adhered to, it does place future tests on the table.
In terms of sanctions, I think that it is unarguable that they have been an abject failure. Upwards of two hundred thousand citizens are still locked in prison camps, the country has tested nuclear weapons and created miniaturized warheads, North Korea has missiles that can reach the United States, and the Kim family is still firmly in control. However, one reason why sanctions have failed is that the enforcement of those international sanctions is rooted in each individual UN member state’s own interpretations of the sanctions and their own willingness to enforce them.
China has been integral to North Korea’s ability to skirt sanctions and carry out illegal activities. And while China occasionally gets tired of Pyongyang’s behavior and temporarily gets stricter with enforcement, the existence of North Korea is within their own national self-interest. This means that China will never do anything that might directly cause the collapse of the current government short of North Korea declaring war or causing significant damage to China itself.
Therefore, absent greater international pressure on China to plug the enforcement leaks and loopholes, China will continue to be North Korea’s lifeline and Kim Jong-un will continue using this to his advantage.
Until China becomes willing to strictly enforce sanctions or until either the United States or South Korea becomes willing to cave on major issues (all unlikely scenarios), North Korea is going to keep testing weapons. The goal of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) is now completely unrealistic unless the United States is willing to go to war, which it hasn’t been despite the murder of multiple US military personnel and the assassination of multiple South Korean officials over the decades.
In my view, the only viable option is that of arms control, limiting the number of warheads and their yields, limiting the range of missiles, and limiting the numbers of launchers North Korea can have in exchange for substantial sanctions relief. However, the human rights situation complicates matters as does Pyongyang’s history of ignoring agreements.
At least in the near term, we should certainly engage in talks but the longer-term position is likely to be merely “wait and see,” as neither side seems willing or capable of making the difficult decisions or want to risk losing face, and as North Korea hasn’t been patient enough for slower confidence-building measures prior to more substantial agreements.
Domestically, human rights abuses will assuredly continue. Kim Jong-un has shown little inclination to degrade the state’s system of prison camps and he has ramped up internal surveillance to levels not seen since Kim Il-sung.
Although Camp 22 was closed under his watch in 2012, many of the prisoners were merely transferred to other sites, and others are alleged to have been allowed to starve to death to enable the camp’s closure.
In contrast, prisons in Pokchong-ni, Kangdong, Chidong-ri, Yongdam, Nongpo, Chongjin, Hwasong, Pukchang, and others have all seen new construction or renovations to their facilities. Additionally, public executions outside of the prisons, within regular towns and villages, have reportedly not ended and are now carried out for things like watching certain foreign media.
Since coming to power, Kim Jong-un has directed the Ministry of Social Security, Ministry of State Security, the People’s Border Guards, and other relevant agencies to crackdown on defections and unapproved cross-border economic activity. In 2011, 2,706 defectors made it to South Korea. By 2018, only 1,137 defectors were able to make it to the South. However, COVID-19 gave Kim a great opportunity to ramp up the repression of freedom of movement.
Hundreds of new border guard huts and hundreds of kilometers of new border fencing have been erected during the pandemic. While anti-defection measures had been begun prior to COVID, nearly the entire northern border ended up with a double row of electrified fencing since the beginning of the pandemic. Although the ‘border blockade’ is ostensibly to prevent the spread of the virus from Chinese persons and goods illegally crossing the border, it has served to nearly end defections.
In 2021 a mere 63 defectors made it to South Korea.
Freedom of expression and thought have also come under greater assault, especially in the last few years, as Kim has solidified his rule and now looks forward to being the only Kim in charge for another generation or two, in the model of his grandfather.
There is no greater threat to a closed society than information and no greater threat to an authoritarian system than individuality. It is said that blue jeans helped bring down communism. This wasn’t because jeans come with guns or brings down economies, but because they became a symbol of capitalism and individuality. While the saying is overly simplistic, that basic article of clothing became subversive and was a reminder that the free world and its values were thriving, while breadlines and secret police were all communism had to offer.
Similarly, North Korea has relied upon the group subsuming the individual. The masses, as a unified whole, are what the North Korean government and society are built upon. The individual only exists as an entity for so long as they give themselves over the larger group and never turn their back on socialism by highlighting their individuality or demanding to be treated as a human being equal to any other.
This feature of all authoritarian regimes, left and right, is relied on to keep the masses in line and curtail any risk of nonconforming thoughts and actions. It is this feature that Kim Il-sung wielded to such a great effect that for a stretch of thirty years, almost no known public demonstrations or other protests occurred.
And after the breakdown of the information cordon in the 1990s, it is this feature that Kim Jong-un must learn to wield again, or else he will have to accept that permanent cracks in the system exist and may one day bring the entire system crashing down.
To this end, more and more effort is being expended on hunting down purveyors of smuggled media material, cell phone tracking and blocking technology has been installed along the entire Sino-DPRK border, and the government has taken greater steps to punish officials and police who turn a blind eye toward or take bribes to overlook illegal activity. Even attacks on everything from non-traditional hairstyles to using foreign slang have been couched in terms of national salvation – of restoring a true socialist community by going after impure, reactionary elements.
Kim Jong-un has even leveraged South Korea’s desires for diplomatic normalization to get the South Korean government to pass laws violating human rights within the ROK merely to appease him. But all that has done is hurt the South’s own legitimacy and standing as a democratic beacon in the region while enabling Kim Jong-un to limit the flow of outside information and culture into the country.
In my view, it’s hard to see a time when this rise in human rights abuses will end so long as the invisible yet existential threat of COVID exists. Of course, the government has never needed a real threat to its existence to lash out at foreign elements within the self-proclaimed racially and culturally pure North Korean community, but COVID happens to be a very real threat and provides an excellent opportunity for Kim to maintain his veer toward greater authoritarianism.
Future of Foreign Relations
Between assassinations, further missile and nuclear tests, and a never-ending list of illicit activities, North Korea has become more and more isolated under Kim Jong-un. The government’s anti-pandemic measures have only exacerbated this with the removal of diplomatic and foreign aid staff from the country. But North Korea has still tried to strengthen ties with China and Russia, as well as Eastern European and African countries through the exploitation of DPRK citizens as foreign labor and, occasionally, construction project leaders.
The long and turbid history of North Korea’s interactions with the world has created an unstable environment with little ingrained goodwill or trust among all parties. Its history with the United States has been particularly fraught.
The Clinton administration thought it had a workable deal in the development of the Agreed Framework, but the death of Kim Il-sung and subsequent famine radically altered the world Kim Jong-il was forced to face, and the Bush administration posed a much different threat in Kim Jong-il’s view after North Korea was labeled as part of the Axis of Evil and with the eventual invasion of Iraq. Under Obama, ‘strategic patience’ only allowed Kim Jong-il and eventually Kim Jong-un to continue their military buildup and created no real progress on the diplomatic front. With President Trump, ‘maximum pressure’ was about as unserious a campaign as one could think of. Despite the horrifying bluster with both sides threatening the annihilation of the other, maximum pressure was more like moderate suggestions, particularly as international efforts continued to hinge on China’s willingness (or lack thereof) to enforce the will of the United Nations.
After a year of a new administration under Biden, it has become obvious that the United States lacks the bandwidth to deal with Kim Jong-un. In the face of continual missile tests, failed summits, and mounting geopolitical problems elsewhere, Americans and the international community itself seem to be going numb to Pyongyang.
Launches no longer draw the media attention they once did and South Korea’s official announcements regarding activity at various nuclear facilities have basically become exact copies of each other, with only the dates changed.
In such an apathetic environment, it’s difficult to see how any progress can be made. And as Russia and China continue to serve as lifelines in the face of international will, dealing with Pyongyang can never simply be a bilateral proposition.
Of course, the only reason anyone even cares about North Korea is because North Korea made itself a problem. It has commanded the world’s attention for generations through threats and belligerent actions. Receding into the background is not the Kim way.
Kim Jong-un will eventually do something that catches the world’s eye once again, and we can only hope that the international community is willing to address whatever that is. Ignoring Pyongyang only emboldens the regime. And while there may be no good options currently and although there have been many failures over the years, discussion and diplomacy are still the best policy – even in the absence of grand agreements or apocalyptic threats.
Tomorrow’s Personality Cult
The half-life of the North Korean cult of personality is roughly the reign of one Kim. During Kim Il-sung’s rule over the country, he was a genuinely beloved and respected leader. The cult under Kim Jong-il fell precipitously as upwards of 1 million North Koreans died under his watch, but the state’s system of indoctrination from birth and its security apparatus insured that the cult survived. Under Kim Jong-un, the cult has weakened further, with many young people reportedly not caring about the great ‘Paektu Bloodline’ or his alleged brilliance.
To counter this, Kim has taken multiple steps to shore up the cult, and, assuming he survives another ten years, these steps can be expected to continue as the cult forms one of the ideological pillars for the state’s very existence and must be maintained.
During his first years, Kim tried to solidify his rule by drawing direct comparisons between himself and Kim Il-sung. His appearance, dress, more personable qualities, and even riding around on white horses, all reminded the people that he was not just another leader but was the rightful heir to Kim Il-sung.
Even his ability to complete the country’s nuclear program and bring a United States president to cross the DMZ all underscored the divine blood flowing in his veins. Still, younger generations have been far more concerned with economic betterment and cultural exchanges than they have been with ridged ideologies. And this poses a long-term threat to the government.
Kim has taken the opportunities provided by COVID-19 to try to reestablish a sense of national unity through a shared crisis, and in doing so, has double-downed on the development of his own personality cult. To do this, he has turned the sacrifice of personal liberties into an expression of true patriotism, for only the Kim family, Juche, and the Monolithic Ideological System can save the country.
As part of this, he has attacked foreign cultural influences, particularly that of South Korean music and other entertainment, with a key focus on rooting out these influences from among the nation’s youth. A so-called “thought law” was implemented in 2021 that goes after those using South Korean slang, efforts have been redoubled to punish those watching foreign media, with executions in store for those accused of distributing the material, and even personal fashion choices have been attacked as being anti-socialist and part of the corrupting influence of capitalism.
With the information cordon that so dramatically cracked under Kim Jong-il being reestablished and cross-border travel becoming ever more difficult, Kim Jong-un is working toward rebuilding the ‘hermit kingdom’ of his grandfather, with as many vestiges of western influences wiped out as possible. The end results being a population less susceptible to revolution, greater government control over the people’s daily lives, less market activity, and it has prolonged the longevity of the Kim family’s rule over the country.
Succession & Future of Government
With questions about Kim Jong-un’s health dogging his entire reign, and the fact it is known that he has experienced medical emergencies, the matter of succession is more pressing than it otherwise would be for a ruler still in his thirties.
Kim Jong-un has made a series of structural changes to the rules of the WPK that could, theoretically, allow for the future succession of a non-Kim family member. He has also placed his sister, Kim Yo-jong, in positions of moderate official power while giving her substantial practical authority. She appears to be the most trusted person in his orbit and can routinely be seen following behind her brother taking notes and keeping meetings/events on track. Additionally, she has been given more leeway to voice her own views than anyone since Kim Jong-il was still being groomed by Kim Il-sung.
Given that Kim doesn’t have any adult children, killed his half-brother, and his other brother has largely been kept in the background, this points to Kim Yo-jong being the de facto successor in the event of an emergency.
Once Kim’s own children come of age, this is likely to change but for the time being, Yo-jong can be considered to be the second most important person in the country. While she lacks the needed official Party and military titles to take over, what’s important is Kim Jong-un’s faith in her and the fact that she has been able to build her own support base within the Party and even the military.
Kim Jong-un will also continue to reform the government and Party to fit the particular needs of his era. Loosening agricultural controls to improve productivity, seeking greater government revenue via market fees/taxes, the further militarization of the civilian police force, and the ongoing shift away from the Songun Policy have all made their mark.
What’s more, is as Kim has replaced older Party apparatchiks and military officers, he has opened up the opportunity to rearrange the inner workings of both organizations to cut down on corruption (which drains money and authority away from the central government), introduce and enforce his own ideological views, and he can gradually set up frameworks to deal with major crises of leadership such as if he became incapacitated or died, as well as to develop a more robust command and control system regarding nuclear weapons.
Trying to understand the decision-making process and the “why’s” within North Korea is often a form of reading tea leaves, but it is my suspicion that the cumulative effect of Kim’s efforts on the structure of the WPK and the military will lead to organizations that, in the end, will be markedly more modern and forward-looking, creating a more viable system for the future.
Contrary to predictions of the Kim regime collapsing or that Kim Jong-un would be a Western-minded reformer, as Pratik Jakhar has noted, his rule has been “remarkably resilient and consistent. Kim Jong Un has stayed within the confines of the framework established by his grandfather Kim Il Sung and inherited from his father Kim Jong Il. In the process, he has preserved state oppression, class divisions, purges, military adventurism, economic control and mandated glorification of the Kim family.”
Jakhar’s view sums up the last ten years and I believe it is prescience for the next ten years as well.
Throughout this biographical series, we have seen that although Kim has initiated a number of changes, they have been on the periphery and still uphold the core values of the regime. Massive construction projects and megafarms have always been part of Pyongyang’s agenda. The roots of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs date to soon after the Korean War and have melded into the national psyche, making their development an integral part of the state’s legitimacy. And there has been no decline in rampant human rights abuses nor has there been a move away from the personality cult.
External forces always elicit responses and policy changes to fit the moment, but they have followed tried and true formulas that have kept North Korea going for 77 years. Meaningful structural changes to the way things are done are never done in haste. What drift there has been over the years since the early days of Kim Il-sung has largely been incremental, with Party hagiographers and archivists taking care to erase any public trace of old policies that are no longer supported by the current ideological flavor.
Over the next decade, Kim Jong-un will undoubtedly face new challenges and will continue to face growing threats from within the country such as information sharing and marketization. But if the last ten years have taught us anything, it’s that he can be relied upon to employ terror tactics within and without, and that he is only open to reform so long as that reform can help ensure the state’s longevity and his premier position within it.
And until China decides to step up its enforcement of international sanctions, there is little reason to believe that things like missile tests, illicit trade, financial crimes, and human labor trafficking won’t continue.
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